Reflecting on… the experiences of one student from a ‘disadvantaged background’.

This is a guest blog written by a former student (@Lissyh1997). I have found it a powerful read as she recalled her experiences in education, positive and negative. @Lissyh1997 is now a trainee teacher and I know she is going to be an amazing addition to the profession.

Following the inequality that certain groups of pupils faced in the first set of A-Level results this year, it seems the perfect moment to confront the ‘injustices’ that pupils from certain backgrounds may face; not only on a national scale but also on an individual school level. Often students from disadvantaged backgrounds are pigeonholed, and assumptions are made as to how they learn, what they learn, and about their overall ability to learn in the first place. Therefore, do teachers themselves unconsciously contribute to bias? Are disadvantaged students set back by labelling from day one? How can this positively or negatively affect these students during their time throughout school and beyond?

Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968) investigated the Pygmalion effect which demonstrated the potential of teachers in influencing performance of students based on teachers’ perceptions. They found labelling students creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, revealing a direct correlation between teacher expectation and student performance. Often, stereotyping or labelling students at the beginning of a course causes consequences as the class moves forward, adding to the belief that these students will continue to under-perform (Chambers, 1999). Coming from a disadvantaged background and qualifying for FSM my predictions were low entering secondary school. From year 7 I struggled thinking that it would be hard to succeed and wondered why I couldn’t be smart like some of my friends, often feeling inadequate when they were offered extension work to do or sat on the ‘smart’ table together.

But I suppose what really made me feel disheartened was heading to my bottom set English class. As (Gillborn & Youdell, 2000) state, disadvantaged pupils are over-represented in lower teaching sets and are at greater risk to reduced teacher expectations, pupil disruption and loss of self-esteem. I assume they made the decision to put me in bottom set English based purely on data, rather than my attitude and personality traits, unique like every student. At the time I was oblivious that perhaps I should not be in that set, but rather thought that I was bad at English and had no hope of ever improving. It was as though my potential was capped by being surrounded by students who struggled and misbehaved, and it unfortunately made me believe that I came under this umbrella too.  

Also, data is often offset by listening to parents, which means students whose parents understand, or know enough about education not to “trust the teachers” but argue their case have a good chance of moving their children up a set. In my case, neither of my parents had been to university or even knew what a set was. Luckily, I had a very supportive and invested form tutor who argued my case and made me aware that this was the wrong set for me. Sometimes students need teachers who are willing to challenge others’ decisions and question things.  As you can see, certain students are left without hope of achieving, or having chances to exceed potential solely because of labelling and that is not the purpose of education. I think it is unfair that a student could feel like they can achieve less based on a teacher’s use of data, and even today, I sometimes feel limited by the labels and doubt the quality of my essays.

As (Gillborn and Mirza, 2000) argue we cannot ignore that all pupils have a class, gender and ethnic identity, but we need to consider the difference they might make to pupil’s experience of schooling rather than putting students into certain boxes. Once again from personal experience, my ‘student profile’ had an impact on the way teachers viewed me. They concentrated more on statistics or previous students, rather than my individual story. The village I come from has a bad reputation with many students misbehaving, underachieving and showing little interest in learning. Therefore, teachers would often expect me to be the same, misbehave and not achieve much. Comments were often made ‘you are not like a typical [insert village] kid’ or ‘Are you sure you are from there?’. Looking back, I now realise that they had decided what I could achieve and what my attitude would be like based on background information, rather than who I was as an individual. The comments might seem harmless and light -hearted, but it shows that they had preconceptions about what I would be like in their classroom. Also, should I have been a ‘typical’ student from this village, would the fact I came from there really better explain my behaviour and attitude, than that I needed extra help with subjects or needing some pastoral support because of a home situation. It felt as if any student from this village, or other similar situations was written off and teachers had given up before even starting to teach or build a rapport.   It is important to remember that students are not just a number, but human beings with faces, names, dreams, and heartbreaks.   I wanted to feel not just like a student from this village who happened to exceed expectations and not fit the stereotype, but a successful student in my own right.

I believe that if we are going to have preconceived ideas about students, we should at least begin to use labelling as a positive concept and value data in order to help those students because as (Chambers, 1999) states, high expectations lead to high performance. I think we should use them to broaden horizons and challenge expectations rather than diminish potential, and this is what some amazing teachers did for me. The head of languages listened to me, truly listened, and reassured me everything would be ok. By not judging me and not grouping me into the category of a disadvantage pupil with a low prediction in languages, they allowed me to keep learning despite home situations. Moreover, they went above and beyond to help me see what I could achieve and spoke to me about university options, something I had never considered. Also, from the first week my form tutor had made his high expectations for me clear and throughout the 5 years, they continued to push me to be the best I could be. He gave me confidence to participate in lessons by giving me counters that I had to use up by the end of lessons, I could only use them up by participating. He recognised I was shy and made it his mission to include me. He taught me I had ideas worth sharing, should take risks and others could learn from me. He even gave me whole form responsibility. My Spanish teacher opened up new interests in the form of linguistics, or showing me a Latin book, and this made me realise I could enjoy other academic aspects of the subject and that he had faith in me to challenge myself. The head of maths was convinced I could get better than a D and offered extra help on a Wednesday afterschool until 6pm.

I personally believe it is about building students up and above are a few examples of how teachers decided not to label me and instead believe in me. Teachers should do, shift attitudes about students and evaluate data in front of them. Students who are ‘difficult’ or ‘disadvantaged’ could be team leaders, peer mentors, on sports teams and school councils. Instead of feeding negative stigma, we could encourage them to flourish, set goals and remind them they are not just the ‘bad behaviour’ they show.  After all, labels may stay with an individual throughout their entire life (Lauchlan & Boyle, 2007) and teachers have responsibility to reverse student’s views of themselves and allow equal opportunity. I think decisions made should be based on robust evidence alongside professional judgement and school context. Teachers ultimately have the ability to be a champion for these often- labelled students and prevent the widening of the opportunity and achievement gaps.

ALT Reflect.  Since reading this piece from @Lissyh1997 I have been reflecting on the following questions about my teaching:

  1.  What unconscious biases do I bring to the classroom as I make decisions about seating plans, groupings and differentiation?
  2. How carefully am I using data to raise my expectations for students, rather than lower them?
  3. Where will this student receive the push to excel in my subject and in their school career as a whole?

One thought on “Reflecting on… the experiences of one student from a ‘disadvantaged background’.

  1. Pingback: JMSReflect Blog … migrates and grows! | JMS Reflect

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